Christmas Eve I spent at the zoo, and even missed evening Mass because of it. There are a few zoos and wildlife parks in the Sydney area, but Taronga Zoo is famous for its view of Sydney Harbour from the north shore. I had my first view of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge when I took the ferry across. It was a beautiful day and many people were out on (or over) the water.
The zoo is set on an incline which gives an amazing view of the city, obstructed only by the animals themselves. There’s a cable-car that runs from the ferry stop at the bottom to the zoo entrance at the top which gives a completely unobstructed view across the water, and a birds-eye view down onto the animals’ enclosures. It’s easy to get lost in the zoo despite there being trails for you to follow, so instead of wandering aimlessly, I went to the events that happened during the day. Some of the friendlier animals like the seals and the elephants would perform in shows (which the zookeepers were eager to stress were part of the animals’ exercise regime) and the lazy (koalas) and dangerous (spiders and Tasmanian devils) animals were fed while the zookeeper talked about them.
One of the most interesting animals I saw was the Tasmanian devil. He had been on my list of animals to see because I didn’t know what they really looked like and I wondered how they managed to make the cartoon of Taz out of them (a combination of the attributes of a Tasmanian Devil and a Dust Devil). They look like black rats the size of small dogs (many people’s worst nightmare, I’m sure), with thick tails and incredibly strong jaws. Its bite is relatively stronger than a lion’s, which it uses to tear flesh and crunch bones. I probably wouldn’t have seen him if I had missed feeding time, because he tends to hide out in his den a lot during the day, according to his keeper. While she threw greenish pieces of kangaroo tail to him, she told us about the conservation project in the zoo.
The devils only live in Tasmania (though they did once live on the Australian mainland once upon a time) and the population has been in decline from culling, introduced predators and loss of habitat, but since the 1990s the population has been reduced by over 60% due to Devil facial tumour disease. This is a transmissable cancer and is spread by animals feeding together and biting each other. Devil facial tumour disease does what the name says and causes tumours to form in and around the mouth which eventually prevents the devil from feeding and causes it to die from starvation. The disease is fatal because of the genetic make-up of the devils, as having been isolated in a small area for so long, there is vary little genetic variation among them which means they are all equally susceptible to the disease. Their immune system doesn’t recognize the cancerous cells as malignant and does not try to defend against them. It is one of only 3 known contagious cancers, all in the animal kingdom.
The tiger had recently had cubs, but because it was the middle of the day they were sheltering in some bushes. I could make them out, but not well enough to take a picture. Another great animal I saw was the platypus! Again, I have no picture because they are kept in a dark house, but I saw them swimming around (a little sadly) in their tank. They were smaller than I expected. I love the story of when they were discovered by Europeans at the end of the 18th C, one was sent back to Britain and many scientists thought it was a hoax – a duck’s beak sewn onto the body of a beaver-like animal. They really are strange egg-laying, venomous, duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed little mammals.
The Komodo dragon (largest lizard in the world) are cool but creepy. I watched a David Attenborough documentary about them where the film crew followed one for about two weeks as it hunted for food. There was a drought and the dragon was getting weaker and weaker, hanging around a watering hole, waiting in hope for prey to appear. After about a week, when it was on its last legs, a water buffalo ventured close enough in order to get to the water. The lizard wasn’t strong enough to take down the beast, but it managed to bite its leg and infect it with its venom. It lurked by the water buffalo for the next few days as the buffalo got weaker and weaker until it wasn’t strong enough to fend off an attack by the weak but hungry lizard.
This was probably the best visit I’ve ever had to the zoo, not just because of all the new animals I encountered, but because all of the animals were so visible. I know I shouldn’t expect animals to have to perform for visitors, but I did love getting to see them at such close range. I took far more photos than I could put on here. I passed on the Animal Encounters, which lets you hold or touch and have your picture taken with an animal. I understand why the zoo does it, because conservation is expensive and by getting the public more involved with the animals, they are more likely to donate. I’m sure many of the animals are halfway to domesticity by now anyway.